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On Being “The UFC Guy/Girl”
If you’ve been a fan of mixed martial arts for long enough, there’s a good chance your friends and family have come to think of you as “the UFC guy [or girl].” Do you get text messages from casual fan acquaintances ahead of major cards, asking for your take on the main event? Of course you do. You might even be used to getting Facebook messages from non-fans on those occasions that our crazy sport breaches the front page of mainstream news. (“Yes, Mom, I saw what they’re saying the Irish guy did. No, I don’t know why he would do that.”)
I certainly qualify as “the UFC guy” to my larger circle of acquaintances, especially in the years since my work started appearing on this site, and in general, I don’t mind one bit. It’s flattering to be thought of as knowledgeable, especially about a subject I love as much as fighting, and if I can help dispel a few misconceptions while I’m at it, better yet. (“No, Mom, people don’t die. Well, OK, a few people have died, but it’s not normal and everyone is horrified when it happens.”) I am happy to be that resource for my family and friends of just about any level of MMA knowledge and interest, whether they have questions or want to discuss their own observations about the sport.
With one notable exception: not if it’s Alex Aboud.
For those who might not know or remember, Alex is a multi-sport uberfan, generally bright guy and sometime Sherdog contributor who shares my fondness for good beer and drawing parallels between MMA and other sports. Sometimes on fight nights, when he gets tired of being the smartest guy at the Wings n’ Boobs, Alex will start messaging me, and sometimes those messages get lengthy, depending on the beer. Saturday’s UFC on ESPN 9 was a card that, for whatever reason, got the beer, the MMA thoughts and the low-dollar bets flowing like wine.
Now, I can’t just flat-out tell Alex to buzz off, because he was best man at my first wedding and I tried wine for the first time at his bar mitzvah. Blood in, blood out. What I can do—and what I did—is say, “I am not typing a 1,200-word response into my phone, dude. You want to talk about this? Let’s get some mileage out of that journalism degree of yours and write an article.” What follows is a point/counterpoint between Alex and myself. If I have to put up with him on Saturday, you all get to deal with him on Monday.
Hitting the WTF Button
Alex: If the real-life Ultimate Fighting Championship were a video game, its controller would need a new button: the WTF button. What are we even watching, and how is it related in any way to what we’ve watched before? Do any of us know what’s going on in the UFC these days?
Ben: What do you mean? Are you saying that Gilbert Burns completely dominating Tyron Woodley for 25 minutes has got you saying “WTF?”
Alex: Not just him! Recently, a couple of fighters have been pounding the WTF button in the biggest fights of their careers. Justin Gaethje broke the code just a few weeks back in a “WTF are we watching?” mauling of Tony Ferguson, who had been on a 12-fight win streak, and now Burns unlocked it in that shocking destruction of a former champ in Woodley. Both performances are even more impressive to me because they weren’t first-round knockouts; they were FIVE rounds each of complete and total ass-kicking. Brutal dominance against champion-level fighters who had never been manhandled like that.
Ben: I dunno, Kamaru Usman blanking Woodley is still pretty fresh in my mind. But I agree that the way Burns won the fight was stunning; while Usman-Woodley looked pretty much how you would have expected if someone told you that Usman won a decision, I would never have predicted Burns beating Woodley to the punch repeatedly for five rounds—to say nothing of him shooting a perfect double-leg and dumping “T-Wood” and his 94-percent takedown defense on the canvas in the first round.
As for Gaethje-Ferguson, you got me there. I had “El Cucuy” in that one, and I had him by stoppage. I had to reconfigure my whole thinking about Gaethje after that fight. I’m sure you’ll remind me how right you were and how wrong I was about him at some point here.
Alex: Woodley’s career eulogy will go so something like this: “Amazing wrestler, super talented athlete, and the least entertaining champion in the history of the UFC. Not one memorable fight I’d ever want to open my Fight Pass app for ever again.” You could say he’s been overrated for a while now—and it’s easier to do now that he’s lost 10 straight rounds—but he came in as almost a 2-to-1 favorite over Burns, with a lot of the “sharp” late money coming in on Woodley. (I know this because I may or may not have lost $20 the hard way watching what turned out to be a glorified sparring match for Burns.)
Ben: Well, not to put too fine a point on this, but Woodley isn’t exactly the first UFC welterweight champ to be exciting before he got the belt, then not so much afterward. Why am I suddenly craving poutine and thinking about dinosaurs? As far as the wrestling goes, he’s definitely one of the best defensive wrestlers the division has ever seen, even with the Usman and Burns fights dragging his numbers down. But offensively? The guy has five total takedowns in his 14 UFC fights, and three of them were against Carlos Condit. (Hat tip to Sherdog stat man Jay Pettry for that one.)
Whether he is or was overrated will be a question for the history books, or at least a question to ask a couple of years from now. An interesting one, too, since he’s tied for the second-most defenses in the history of the division. Was he a good fighter who held the belt until some great ones came along, or was he a great fighter who simply went off a cliff overnight thanks to age and so many injuries? For what it’s worth, I had Woodley in the Staff Pick ‘Em, and I was the only one who had him by first-round knockout. I’m not saying my shame is equal to your 20 bucks, but it’s worth at least a fiver.
Alex: There was actually good reason to like Woodley, though. He’s fought better competition, was comfortable with the five round distance, and should have been the naturally bigger and more physical fighter. But when they entered the cage, you could immediately tell something was up. Burns, who fought at lightweight as recently as last April, looked not just as big as, but noticeably bigger than Woodley. And from the very first exchange, Burns, a jiu-jitsu guy with only six wins by KO in 21 previous fights, was doing some ridiculous thumping with those strikes. By the end of first round, Woodley was a mess and would never mount anything close to a challenge.
For five full rounds, Burns out-punched him, out-wrestled him, and basically did whatever he wanted in the cage. It got so bad that he started following Woodley to his corner between rounds just laughing at him. WTF? We’ve seen Woodley lose, but NEVER like this. He made it the five rounds, but it was so one-sided even Adalaide Byrd could have scored it right. (Well, let’s not get into hyperbole.)
Ben: I wasn’t too shocked at how big Burns looked. He looked big against Demian Maia—who is a large welterweight and a former middleweight title challenger—in March. I think I’m just happy that Burns is finally embracing his welterweight nature. Going all the way back to his grappling and early MMA career, he was always a 170-pounder, but just got it in his head that he needed to be a lightweight to win at the UFC level. As someone who hates weight-cutting culture but also dislikes over-regulation, I cheer any time a Robert Whittaker or Gilbert Burns moves up in weight voluntarily—rather than being forced, like Kelvin Gastelum—and thrives.
What did surprise me is how relatively small Woodley looked—relative to his usual self, I mean, not to his opponent. He’s always the shorter fighter, but he’s typically so heavily muscled through the chest, shoulders and arms that he looks like a He-Man figure. I thought he looked noticeably leaner on Saturday, and I was left wondering whether that was a strategic choice in the interests of cardio, or just an indication that he hasn’t been able to do the kind of strength training he’s accustomed to. I still don’t know, but whichever was the case, it sure didn’t seem to help.
Alex: Back to Justin Gaethje for a moment?
Ben: By all means!
Alex: In the Gaethje-Ferguson fight three weeks ago, we all saw a talented but limited fighter stepping way up in class against a Swiss Army-style, cutting, slashing monster in Ferguson. Gaethje, who we thought invented the WTF button, did pretty much the same thing to Ferguson that Burns did to Woodley.
Ben: The specifics were different, of course, but the similarity is there in the sense that neither Ferguson nor Woodley had taken such a pillar-to-post beating before.
Alex: This one was more shocking because Gaethje made the leap in one night from an entire history of being a crazy-entertaining but not exactly strategic fighter to a total and complete monster. (This is where I remind you that I called this, over a year ago.)
Crisp with his punches, but measured… stalking… actually employing a strategy beyond rock-em-sock-em. And the guy on the other end? If anyone can find me any video—amateur or pro—of Ferguson taking even three rounds’ worth of that five-round beating, I’d like to see it. WTF was that? No one does that to Ferguson… it just hadn’t been seen.
Ben: Nope. Even the people who had beaten Ferguson before, like Michael Johnson, had slowed him down and frustrated him, but never had anyone landed that kind of sustained offense on him. Everyone who fights Ferguson hits him cleanly a few times, but he hits them more and then they die, at least until Gaethje. (Not literally, Mom.)
Gaethje had been growing more measured over his last few fights and seemed to be on his way to becoming the fighter who walked into the Octagon at UFC 249, but he sure finished the trip in a hurry. (Again, another big fight I picked wrong, as I had Ferguson by stoppage in that one.) The thing that impressed me most about Gaethje at 249 was his willingness to use his leg kicks as a primary weapon. He has had some of the most vicious low kicks in the game since before he got to the UFC, but he never threw enough. They were almost always a punctuation mark at the end of his punch combinations. In a way, it made sense; leg kicks are an investment in attrition, so if you fight like you don’t believe there’s going to be a third round, why would you bother? I’m glad he’s getting over that.
Alex: Now, all fighters eventually decline, but I’ve never seen a fighter at that level get pummeled for five long rounds the way I saw Ferguson take it that night. He actually didn’t quite make it to the end of the fifth round; Herb Dean had to stop the fight when Ferguson could barely walk on two feet… meandering around his corner looking for what had been lost… his face. It was just shocking.
Ben: That’s the question, isn’t it? And it’s another parallel with Woodley, because at 36 and with his history of injuries, Ferguson is bound to decline at some point, if it isn’t happening already. You have to wonder whether Gaethje looked so good in part because Ferguson was not at his best. It also cannot have helped that Ferguson made the bizarre decision to cut to 155 pounds—all the way from 179, apparently—three weeks before the fight, just to show he had weighed in at championship weight on the date the fight was originally to have taken place.
Alex: Question time: Where does this leave us? Who’s hitting the WTF button next? Can the women play this game? If so, does that mean Amanda Nunes better be careful this Saturday against a scrappy, but decidedly not on her level Felicia Spencer? Can we be so sure? I’ll say this: There’s no longer anything such as a sure thing in the UFC.
Ben: Women can absolutely play this game. It wasn’t for a belt, but my upset of the year so far is Roxanne Modafferi over Maycee Barber, and it was a version of what we’ve been talking about here: Barber got out-fought in every phase of the fight in a way nobody had ever done to her—obviously, since she was previously undefeated. Having said that, I don’t think Nunes-Spencer is it. Nunes is going to be hydrated and happy at 145 pounds and all of Spencer’s most obvious routes to victory are going to be hard sledding. Clinch takedowns against one of the nastiest phone-booth fighters in UFC history? Ick.
But what do I know? We’ve just spent an entire column talking about two of the biggest UFC main events of the year, both of which I picked dead wrong.
Alex: So Jorge Masvidal—
Ben: Nope, we’re done. Do you know how long this article is already? You want to hype up your man “Gamebred,” you’ll need to do another one of these columns with me.